The Church Blog

Here are updates from First Lutheran Church.

The concept of giving an offering or a sacrifice to God or the gods in whatever religious system is shockingly common. In most religious systems, the offering is meant to please and appease the gods so that they will look with favor upon humanity and give them seasonable weather, good fortune, or whatever the humans are asking for.
This may seem antiquated, but how often do you hear the trope from movies, TV, or in your own life where a person is in trouble and they make a promise of an offering or a sacrifice if God or the gods get them out of the mess they are in. 
Legend has it this happened to Martin Luther. Traveling in the countryside through a lightning storm, he promised to become a monk if he got out of the storm. 
We see this in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. There's one chapter in which Tigger bounces to the top of the tree, gets stuck, refuses to try to climb or bounce or jump down, and then promises that if he ever gets out of this mess, he'll never bounce again. 
The attitude of Luther or Tigger in such a moment is one of desperation, one of offering to repay God or the gods by doing something in particular or by giving up something in particular, by offering or sacrificing something. Luther offers his life to service in the church. Tigger offers to give up his absolute favorite thing in the entire world. 
The attitude behind these offerings and sacrifices, these promises, is not the attitude of the Christian offering. As Christians, we do not view the offering this way. Such offerings are hostage negotiations that we make up in our own mind. They are cosmic contracts that God never actually agrees to.
When Christians come forward with their offerings, it is not to curry God's favor, but to thank God for His unwavering favor that has already been placed upon us. Christians should never give an offering with the mindset that if we give enough, God will help us win the lottery or get us that promotion at work or whatever thing we desire. Offerings are not a way to payoff God to give us what we want, but rather the Christian offering is a time to give back to God for already giving us all that we need, all that we have to support this body and life.
Although, there are times when God calls upon us to be more faithful in our offerings, even to put Him to the test. In Malachi 3, God challenges the people to give their full tithe, to quit robbing God by holding back from all that He has given them. 
There is enough biblical evidence to show that God actually does expect 10% from His people. It's not the easiest jump to make from offerings of crops to offerings of dollars, but the expectation for God's people has been to return a tithe, 10% of what God has blessed them with. 
What has God blessed you with? 
The real problem with the example of Tigger is that Tigger offers to give up what God had given him. Tigger doesn't offer to use his bouncing for good, to use the talent God had given him for the betterment of the 100-Acre Wood. Tigger had been doing that very thing when he got stuck in the tree. He was teaching Roo how to bounce. He was spreading joy through his God-given talent. It is only after Tigger gets down, and Rabbit relinquishes his hold on Tigger's promise never to bounce again, that we see Tigger go back to his vocation of spreading the joy of bouncing.
The problem with examples like Tigger is that they come from a place of fear that blinds us to the goodness of what God has blessed us with.
So what has God blessed you with? Do you have an income? God blessed you with that. Do you have a passion or some skill set? God has blessed you with that. Do you have relationships and a sphere of influence? God has blessed you with those. Don't hide those things. Don't ignore those things. Don't hoard those things to yourself. Don't try to give up on those things like Tigger did in fear and desperation, but rather put them to use in the kingdom of God. 
Make the best use of what God has given to you. And if you don't know what that looks like, talk to somebody with more experience in this world of being a good steward of God's gifts.
Preaching is an odd task. I'm expected to deliver 60-70 sermons a year averaging around 15 minutes. Each year I deliver 15+ hours of memorized material that's different every week. I study and research. I pray about what to say. I write 1300 words give or take. I re-write, practice, polish, memorize, deliver, and repeat. 
In today's world there are a lot of jobs that require public speaking, but few professions ask as much as the role of pastor when it comes to public speaking. Other professions probably have a similar amount of time of public speaking, maybe even quite a bit more, but probably not the level of variety of speeches. A lot of public speaking professions involve giving the same talk, speech, or presentation several times. Pastors aren't in the habit of recycling sermons. Well, they certainly shouldn't be. That's just lazy.
Stand up comedians, for example, spend much more time in front of audiences, but typically they use the same set with little tweaks here and there for several months in a row. They're always testing new material and honing their set so that the performance in Akron on Tuesday can be better than the performance in Indianapolis was on Monday.
Pastors don't often have such opportunity. I have one service. One shot. There's no honing a sermon once it is delivered. Pastors with multiple services get that chance, but they typically don't have time to think about what to change. Between the sermon at 8:00 and the sermon at 10:30, there's Bible study, no down time to re-write and consult with others on what to change.
Then there's the added pressure of this public speaking having the weight of being God's Word to the hearers. The pressure of finding the appropriate dynamics of Law and Gospel, the pressure of finding examples of application that mean something to the hearers. The pressure of not straying from the text and its message, but allowing the text to guide my words and structure and tone. 
The sermon in the worship service can look very different depending on who the preacher is. Some sermons are all about how how people should be living. Some are a history lesson and little else. Some lead the congregation to praise and singing. Some lead the congregation to despair because of how terrible they are. Some kill and make alive through the words of Law and Gospel. Some speak to the Gospel of Christ's forgiveness, given to us by His blood. Some speak to the Gospel of Christ's victory over death in resurrection. Some do a combination of these things.
In Luther's Small Catechism, as he writes about the third article of the Apostles' Creed, Luther says the following:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the one true faith, just as He calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
The work of preaching is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scripture each sermon is based upon and the Holy Spirit works where and when He will to guide preachers in their preaching. Yes, preachers are sinners and we make mistakes that we are to blame for, not the Holy Spirit. 
I believe every sermon should aspire to do the Holy Spirit's work that Luther talks about, to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep God's people. Some sermons will do one of these things. Some will do more than one, perhaps even all. 
As preachers, most of us tend toward one of these as our default. Some love to enlighten with explanations and history lessons. Some love to call with the Gospel, hoping people who are struggling to believe or who have not yet believed in Jesus will do so. Some love to sanctify, to speak to how to live a holy life. Some love to keep, to preach a word of encouragement that will nourish God's people and keep them going in their walk of faith.
There are many factors that go into good preaching, but perhaps the most important is variety. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of Gospel metaphors in the Scriptures. There are typically dozens, perhaps hundreds of different people in each congregation. Different metaphors hit home with different people. If the only word of Gospel you speak is that of forgiveness, you may never speak a meaningful word to the woman who is filled with shame after being abused by her husband for years. If the only Gospel you speak is victory over death in the resurrection, you may never connect to that adulterer who is racked with guilt. 
Ultimately, the sermon is the time for God's Word to come to His people filtered through and applied by the Holy Spirit working in the preacher. Sometimes the preacher filters and applies poorly or wrongly, but I find oftentimes that even when I feel like a sermon has failed, the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the minds and hearts of the hearers to distract them from my mediocre words and implanting His own Word of Law and Gospel on the hearts of my hearers.
The prayers are a time when the congregation brings its burdens before the Lord, and often before each other. Prayers are shared for the sick and dying, the grieving, the hopeless and the helpless. These are the prayers most often requested in my experience. Prayers about an upcoming surgery, recovery from illness, the death of a loved one. 
But prayers are also made in thanksgiving. People often request prayers as they celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions. They give thanks when healing has occurred, when jobs are found, when life is good.
Prayers are made for leaders in the world and the church. Prayers are offered that relate to the Scripture readings for the day.
The prayers I hear the least, and the prayers I pray the least, are when life is neither good nor bad, when life is humming along at the status quo filled with stress and exhaustion, but lacking in crisis situations. People often don't request prayers to feel more rested, to have more energy, to have more satisfaction with their work, or to have a crisis situation come up so that they will appreciate the routine and status quo more.
Yet, if you think about the Lord's Prayer, what is it other than a prayer for an ordinary day. Give us this day our daily bread. Give us what we need to survive another day of the status quo. 
One of the biggest lies the world tells us is that we are missing out, that we deserve more and better, that we won't be satisfied until we upgrade everything. 
But this is a never ending striving after the wind. It depletes our satisfaction far more than enhances it. Such tireless striving robs us of the ability to enjoy what we have, to notice and appreciate, and pray for the mundane, for daily bread.
I'd love to see more mundane requests. Because, let's face it, what we consider mundane are some of the greatest blessings we have. Thank you God for my ordinary, mundane car. Thank you God for the technology to communicate with my friends around the globe. Thank you God for my health (even when I'm not taking the best care of my body). 
Thank you God for roads and grocery stores and books and air conditioning and fingernail clippers and indoor plumbing and sunsets and music and stories and flowers and coffee. 
You see, our prayers of thanks for and dissatisfaction with the mundane reveal the total and entire point of prayer: all things are dependent upon God. 
Comedian Kathleen Madigan once joked about the USA's deficit and debt, saying that she'd be more likely to act if the deficit wasn't some astronomical number beyond her comprehension, but was something mashed potatoes. Ordinary things are taken for granted until they are taken away. Then, we don't know how to handle it.
So let us thank God today for mashed potatoes. Let us thank God for the ordinary. Because let's face it, ordinary just means things we have gotten used to, and every ordinary thing is an absolute marvel.
After the Gospel Reading, the congregation sings a hymn to focus their attention on the themes for the day: the Hymn of the Day. 
The Hymn of the Day is pre-selected. Usually it is the same hymn for all three years of the lectionary cycle. This makes sense for about half of the year when the readings follow a feast day pattern. Lent 1 always utilizes the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the Hymn of the Day is always "A Mighty Fortress." Easter 4 is "Good Shepherd Sunday" so the classic Psalm 23 paraphrase: "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" gets the call all three years of the lectionary cycle. 
For the other half of the year though, the Hymn of the Day has a danger of not connecting well. There is nothing really connecting series A, B, and C in the season of Pentecost (or "Ordinary Time" in some traditions). 
The Hymn of the Day is meant to be thematic. It is the good news and story of the day set to music. It's like that one song in a musical or Disney movie that utilizes the name of the show the most. (My mind goes to "Tale as old as time..." from Beauty and the Beast.)
The Hymn of the Day should not be confused with the "Office Hymn" which is used in other liturgies such as Matins, Vespers, Compline, Morning Prayer, and Evening Prayer. The term "office" here refers to the time of the day. Monasteries often had seven specified times of prayer. That's where Matins, Vespers, and Compline come from. They are three of the seven offices. So the Office Hymn for Matins should be a morning hymn. The Office Hymn for Compline should be a hymn to fall to sleep to.
There is also a...trend we'll call it...of not using the Hymn of the Day specifically, but simply selecting something for this slot called the "Sermon Hymn." If the Hymn of the Day doesn't fit the direction of the sermon, this can be a useful change.
A different trend that I think is worth exploring is moving the Hymn of the Day or Sermon Hymn to after the sermon. 
This seems to find roots in the African American tradition of preaching. The goal of many sermons in traditionally African American churches is for the hearers to praise God. (For more see Richard Eslinger's book, The Web of Preaching.) This is a most biblical idea. After God does something saving and amazing, the response in the Scriptures is often singing. In Exodus 15, after the Israelites escape Egypt and cross the Red Sea, they break into song. After Deborah and Barak defeat the king of Hazor in Judges 4, they break into song in Judges 5. After Jesus institutes the Lord's Supper, He and the disciples sing a hymn as they go to Gethsemane. 
We'll get to the sermon next time, but the goal of the sermon could very well affect the order of the worship service. One approach to sermon goals is to have a balance of "faith goals" and "life goals." 
Life goals involve specific actions steps. A preacher may write a life goal out like this:
  • That the hearers would invite a neighbor to church. 
  • That the hearers would be more generous with their tithes and offerings. 
  • That the hearers would read the Scriptures more often. 
These are all attached to tangible, often measurable actions.
Faith goals often involve things that are more cognitive and affective. They involve the heart and mind more than the hands and feet. Things like being persuaded to trust, hope, and love more deeply. A faith goal might be written like this:
  • That the hearers would find security in their baptismal identity. 
  • That the hearers would see the return of Jesus and resurrection of the dead as their ultimate hope.
  • That the hearers would keep their eyes fixed on Jesus as they persevere through the struggles of life.
Faith and life goals don't always have solid delineations, and sometimes sermons have more than one goal. In general, Lutherans are often heavy on the faith goals which makes our movement from sermon to Creed, where we confess our faith, a logical one. Other traditions are heavy on life goals, so the movement from sermon to singing and praise is a logical progression. 
The best reason to use the pre-selected Hymn of the Day is pretty simple: many other churches in your tradition are using it (along with the readings, Collect, Introit, etc.) and often the Hymn of the Day is a classic piece to your tradition that your congregation should know. The best reason to not use it is if it doesn't fit into the direction and themes of the service.  
After the sermon comes one of the three creeds. Creed is a term derived from the Latin for "I believe." So it is no surprise that the two most common creeds we use begin with  "I believe..." These are the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. The third and least used of the three creeds is the Athanasian Creed.
In some congregations, the Nicene Creed is used on Sundays when the Lord's Supper is celebrated. The Apostles' Creed is used on Sundays when the Lord's Supper is not celebrated. And the Athanasian Creed is used for Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost). 
A somewhat recent movement to celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday has made the above a bit obsolete. Some congregations have adapted by simply alternating every other week between the Apostles' and Nicene Creed. Others use the Nicene Creed for the festival portion of the year (from Advent to Pentecost) and the Apostles' Creed for the Sundays after Pentecost.
The Nicene Creed was formed over the course of more than 50 years. Beginning in 325 at the ecumenical Council of Nicea, the church sought to articulate a confession to provide clarity against heresies that had arisen. The Creed wasn't completed until 381 at the Council of Constantinople. 
The Apostles' Creed is steeped in a bit more mystery. It was long held that each of the 12 Apostles constructed one line of this confession and it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. From what I can tell, the Apostles' Creed began as part of the baptism rite in one corner of the early church. It was morphed and edited along the way. Its earliest construction (we'll call it a rough draft) was probably in the second century, but its current form wasn't settled upon until the eighth century.
Much like the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed is aimed at articulating the faith in the face of heresies. The main concern in this case was the Trinity. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not parts or modes of the same God. All three persons are God. They are distinct from one another, yet united. 
Within the worship service, the Creed stands as a moment of unity. Together the congregation confesses their faith in this Triune God. Christians throughout the world, in dozens of countries and thousands of languages confess their faith each week in one of these creeds. Despite denominational division, the Creed anchors us to unity. After all, it is in the Nicene Creed that we confess we believe in "one, holy, Christian/catholic, and Apostolic church." One. Not thousands. One.
To me, the Creed is a moment to reflect upon one of my favorite moments in Scripture. In Mark 9, when a man brings his demon-possessed child to Jesus, eventually this man confesses, "I believe! Help my unbelief." 
I believe each line of each of these creeds. I ascent to them with my mind, my heart, my soul. But I don't always live like I believe. Oftentimes I live in disbelief, in unbelief, even in anti-belief.
Sometimes I act as if God's creation didn't matter. Sometimes I act as if Jesus' incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and return were nothing more than monotone facts of history, rather than the most important events to ever occur in the galaxy. Sometimes I act as if the Holy Spirit were nothing, and I seek to take credit for all of the ideas the Holy Spirit has given me.
The Creed is a time to say "Jesus is Lord," even if it is spoken in monotone. It is a time to remember that God is God, and I am not. 
The readings that take place during a worship service differ greatly in regard to genre, setting, and theme. Some readings from the Old Testament are narrative, others prophetic, others poetry, others apocalyptic. They span more than a thousand years of Israel's history. They are penned by nearly three dozen different authors.
The Epistle readings are all letters written to specific people or communities addressing specific issues that were problematic. They span a 50-70 year period of the early church.
But the Gospels record a narrow time frame, a narrow geographic range, and focus in on one person: Jesus. The four Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell the story of Jesus. Matthew and Luke include Jesus conception and birth in their story-telling. Luke throws in a story of Jesus as a 12-year-old boy. But the vast majority of these four books is spent in a three year period that records Jesus' baptism, temptation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Gospels record the story of the most important character in God's salvation narrative. Every other scriptural writing up to this point had been pointing to this character. Every other scriptural writing after this point will be pointing back to this character. Everything hinges on the Gospels. Everything hinges on Jesus. 
In the three-year lectionary system, about 68% of the the Gospels get covered. Most of what doesn't get covered are sections that are repeated by multiple authors. (So you'll get Luke's version of a particular healing rather than Mark's on occasion.) Only two chapters are entirely passed over in the lectionary, Matthew 8 and Matthew 12. 
The lectionary follows a three-year cycle, which tends to follow one Gospel writer throughout the church year. Year A is Matthew. Year B is Mark. Year C is Luke. John fills in the gaps along the way and we actually hear more from John's Gospel than Matthew and Luke. 
Many people have a Gospel author that they tend to prefer. They each bring their own style and their own stories. Without Matthew we wouldn't know about the Magi or Wise Men from the East bringing their gifts to the infant/toddler Jesus nor the great commission of Matthew 28. Without Mark, we wouldn't have some of the details of Jesus' arrest and trial that we hold dear. Without Luke we wouldn't have the infancy narrative of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the thief on the cross, and much more. Without John, we wouldn't have the raising of Lazarus, the foot-washing, the proclamation of Jesus as the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the bread of life. Without John we wouldn't hear "It is finished" from the cross. We wouldn't have Thomas's story of missing out on Jesus' appearance. 
Each Gospel author has been vital to our understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done for us. 
It goes without saying, but I highly recommend reading and/or listening to the Gospels. And I highly recommend doing so multiple times in a short period of time. If you can manage to read Mark once a week for ten weeks in a row, you'll begin to notice things in the eighth and ninth reading that you missed on the first several reads. 
We need to treat the Gospels like a child treats their favorite Disney film. We need to consume them over and over and over again so that they are so embedded in our memory that when we return to them years later, we still know them by heart, we still remember the nuance and the detail, and we still see Jesus saving His people.
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